I love to watch my children swim. Seeing them glide through the water and perform various strokes fills me with a sense of pride. I’m so glad I had them take swim lessons, because now they have an activity they can enjoy throughout their lives. Our swim team days are behind us now, but I still enjoy seeing my kids swim. They make it look so easy and effortless. I know having children who can swim is not unusual and that lots of people can swim well. The reason I am thrilled with my own offsprings’ aquatic accomplishments is because I personally can barely swim at all.
I never had any structured swim lessons. I picked up tips here and there from my next door neighbors who knew how to swim and encouraged me to join them in their backyard pool. I learned enough to keep myself afloat but I always felt better when I was able to touch the pool bottom even if I had to stand on tiptoe to do it. I wanted to have fun with my friends in the pool, but bodies of water and I always had an uneasy alliance.
As a young adult, I continued to dog paddle around pools and since I was extremely nearsighted I kept my contacts in so I could see where I was going. I had tried taking my contacts out at a beach one time, and felt truly vulnerable when I emerged from the waves and realized I could not see well enough to locate my friends. I had to wander up and down the beach until I heard a familiar voice or got close enough to recognize someone. Swimming continued to be associated with unease and vulnerability over the years.
Fast forward to my adulthood as a mother with three young children. I consider the ability to swim to be an important life skill, so I made sure each of my kids had the benefit of swim lessons with someone who could teach them to swim with confidence. I then had laser surgery to correct my vision and successfully achieved 20/20 vision. I was excited to think that finally I could swim with my children because I could see where I was going. Guess what? I still didn’t know how to swim even though my vision was fine. I only knew how to swim with my head out of the water, sort of like how Tarzan swims only without the yell and with a lot more lurching.
I was thinking about the similarities between my struggles with swimming and my children’s struggles with aspects of their schoolwork. If you look at me, there’s nothing to indicate that I am not a swimmer. I look like I should be capable of swimming the way others do. If you look at my children, they look as if they should be able to complete their schoolwork without significant difficulty. Their learning challenges are invisible until they are observed in a task that is more difficult for them than for the average learner.
Recently I started swimming at a local gym, doing my lurching breaststroke and my backstroke. I can keep my face out of the water most of the time with those two strokes but I decided once again to try and learn how to swim with my face in the water. I borrowed my daughter’s goggles, took a deep breath, and…froze! There’s something about being face down in the water that panics me. I try to talk myself through it, offering various reasons why I should be able to do this. I try to convince myself that I can do it, and that once I learn to swim with my face in the water I might actually enjoy it.
My children who are struggling learners have similar experiences. I try to talk them through tasks, but there is still something blocking their learning process. I encourage them to try again, try harder, and try again. How frustrating this must be for a child who is already trying hard but not experiencing success commensurate with that effort. It must feel to them the way I feel when I swim as fast as I can, only to have the person in the next lane glide past me with ease. I’m trying harder to do what others accomplish with ease. Our struggling learners put forth more effort but often don’t get the tangible results that seem to come so naturally to others.
The saying, “sink or swim” always seemed to me to imply that if you jumped into a task you would learn how to do it because you had to. Now I’m not so sure. I know that some of us are more likely to actually sink no matter how motivated we are to learn and overcome challenges. I am more careful than ever not to compare my children and the ways they learn with other children and their accomplishments. Likewise I try not to compare my swimming attempts with those around me because it’s discouraging and unhelpful.
I won’t give up on my struggling learners, but I don’t expect their learning achievements to look like the average learner’s. I haven’t given up on swimming with my face in the water, either. So far no matter what I try, sooner or later I end up irrigating my sinuses with pool water and gasping for air. On my most recent trip to the pool, however, I was able to swim about 4 feet before I snorted in some water. It’s not impressive, but it is progress. Likewise those with learning challenges hit bump after bump in their attempts to master needed skills. It’s not a nice smooth learning curve, but that lurching progress is still progress in the right direction. Celebrate that forward movement and don’t compare your efforts to the person in the next lane. Instead, celebrate YOUR progress and that of your children and allow the joy to follow.